By Gabriel Donleavy
My journey to Rome was more like navigating a meandering river in a small boat than a pilgrimage walking down a straight road.
At the turn of the century, I was an agnostic Anglican who was also a Freemason. The barriers I had in my mind against full engagement with the church were its history of persecutions, the paedophile scandals, my continuing conviction that being pain-free was more important than being alive, and my assumption that science had the tools for finding the ultimate answers to our questions.
When I met my current wife, she was a devout Catholic and we agreed to refrain from interfering with the other’s beliefs. We married in a registry office and solemnised vows in the Anglican church.
She wished for a solemnisation in the Catholic faith, and the local cathedral office told me it was not necessary for me to convert but it was necessary for my previous marriages to be investigated. Only if they were found null could a solemnisation occur.
My second wife (an Anglican) had died, so only proof of that was requested, but my first wife was alive and in her own marriage. She agreed to make a statement to the tribunal about our misconceptions about the marriage and I sourced friends from those days who also provided corroborative witness statements.
I promised my wife that if the petition for annulment were granted, I would seriously consider taking confirmation classes as I would deem it only fair to do so.
I took catechism classes with my parish priest, not really expecting that my barriers and doubts could be authentically overcome.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, I decided to take a holiday in Poland to see how it was handling three million refugees without a breakdown of social order.
When I visited, it was Easter and I thought it would be nice to attend a service. But all the big cathedrals were full to overflowing, so I kept walking out from central Krakow until I found a church that still had some room—St Agatha’s.
I was very moved by the service, not that I understood Polish, and profoundly touched by the quiet compassion and unshowy efficiency with which the Polish people managed the Ukrainian refugee influx.
I could not think of any other nation I knew getting anywhere near such collective goodness now.
I returned to Australia still surprised that human nature could be so widely good. It undermined my previous cynicism about the possibility and authenticity of virtue.
The biggest barrier against confirmation remained the history of cruelties in the church, such as the Inquisition. I had this in mind when I acted the part of the party’s interrogator in a theatrical version of George Orwell’s 1984.
The interrogator believed he was “saving” Winston Smith by torture. I could see the parallel with Inquisitors imagining that they were saving souls.
Then one night I had a thought: But what if the Magisterium really does illuminate and guard the paths to salvation?
What if my new ability to perceive goodness in people and recognition that the postulates in the catechism make sense far beyond the sense provided by any rival frameworks was real and not a hallucination?
Dare I make the jump, now that I had had a glimpse of what a state of grace was, and its authentic reality?
I waited for a last sign that I should make the jump. It came with the death of the Queen, which was attended by a massive outpouring of grief and adoration around the world.
Although she was undoubtedly a faithful and believing Christian I could see there was something not sufficient in and of itself in the religious feelings she was inspiring.
The saintliness of the present and most recent popes seemed self-evidently a more appropriate object for religious veneration, even though the Queen had more than merited love and respect from the world.
I made the jump. I sacrificed membership of the Masons, talked out my remaining doctrinal difficulties with my parish priest and was confirmed in October 2022.
My whole life had lacked a sense of belonging anywhere till then. I never expected I would find it in a religious setting, least of all in the Catholic Church. But that is the fact of it. Thanks be to God.